What is the climate crisis, and how is an individual’s mental health affected?
Just what, exactly, is climate change?
Of all the hot-button issues making their rounds in public discourse, perhaps none have received the same level of attention as climate change. And the attention is well-deserved: rising temperatures globally have had a disastrous impact on the environment and the mental health of people living in all corners of the world.
Climate change–or more accurately, the climate crisis–is the first recorded weather phenomenon caused by human activity. Since the Industrial Revolution’s beginning in the 18th century, carbon emissions have trapped heat and toxins in the Earth’s atmosphere that have had negative effects all over the globe.
Hurricanes, forest fires, extreme droughts, rising sea levels and other natural disasters have been increasing in both frequency and intensity. As of 2020, the Ecological Threat Register reported that the number of natural disasters has increased tenfold since the 1960s.
Despite the efforts of countries like Denmark and Sweden to help reduce the amount of human harm caused to the environment, greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise once again. Such high levels of greenhouse gas in our atmosphere can have a lasting impact on our Earth in the form of uncontrollable fires, respiratory disease and air pollution.
But despite all of the data collected about the negative side-effects of global warming, drastic changes have yet to be made.
The easiest way to encourage change is to break down a complex topic into digestible pieces: what exactly do these terms like climate crisis, greenhouse gases and climate refugees mean? Who is most directly affected by the climate crisis? How is the climate crisis affecting the mental health of people globally? And if no one is immune to the effects of this worldwide catastrophe, then how can we identify the ways it impacts people, and aim to do better?
Let’s start with the basics: the term climate crisis refers to the various natural disasters worldwide that are in some way caused by human activities. Does this mean that humans were the ones who caused the 2019-2020 Australian Bushfire? Not necessarily. But the ongoing drought was likely caused (at least in part) by the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions caught in our atmosphere.
But wait a moment: what, exactly are greenhouse gases, and where do they come from? According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are called greenhouse gases”. Some of the most common forms of greenhouse gases may sound familiar–carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and industrial gases (made by humans) make up the majority of harmful gases trapped in our atmosphere.
Just like it’s namesake, greenhouse gases get caught in our atmosphere and insulate heat. This means that while sources of heat like sunlight (solar radiation) would typically warm the surface of the Earth during the day and leave during night, heat stays trapped within the atmosphere and continues heating the Earth’s surface for far longer than intended.
And that is the crux of the climate crisis: things are getting much hotter, much too quickly.
As the discussion surrounding our climate crisis has gained momentum in the past several years, the natural reaction would be to see the ways that people are impacted by it every day.
The truth is that natural disasters are affecting our ability to live in certain corners of the world. The concept of displacement is nothing new, but as more and more people are forced to relocate because of extreme weather conditions, discussions surrounding the importance of climate refugees are also gaining attention.
It’s important to acknowledge that not every instance of relocation is the same. California families planning strategic retreats from their seaside homes decades in advance cannot be held at the same level of urgency as in Bangladesh, where “Up to 50% of those now living in Bangladesh’s urban slums may be there because they were forced to flee their rural homes as a result of riverbank erosion”, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Lawrence A. Palinkas, the Albert G. and Frances Lomas Feldman Professor of Social Policy and Health and faculty at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, has dedicated a portion of his research work to studying the emotional and psychological impacts of the climate crisis.
“Even voluntary migration can be quite stressful because it requires leaving behind family and friends and developing new networks of social support and learning how to get along with others and get basic needs met, like where to shop for food,” Palinkas wrote in an email interview. “These challenges are compounded when you move to some place where the people speak a different language, have different customs, and may not necessarily be all that welcoming to climate refugees. The experience of migration itself can be dangerous and life-threatening, as is the case of refugees fleeing civil conflict. This places displaced people at risk for PTSD, depression, and anxiety.”
That’s eerily in alignment with many of the same mental illnesses that are commonly found in many homeless populations within the United States. An article published to the Homeless Hub website stated that, “The stress of experiencing homelessness may exacerbate previous mental illness and encourage anxiety, fear, depression, sleeplessness and substance use.”
According to Palinkas, we can expect to see short-term and long-term mental health effects in the future. “Extreme weather events like hurricanes, typhoons, wildfires and earthquakes that pose an immediate danger are likely to produce symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety. For many survivors of these events, the symptoms will gradually disappear over time. For 10-30% of survivors, these symptoms are likely to persist and require some form of clinical intervention.
“Not everyone will require intensive interventions like trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotropic medication. Many can be helped with less interventions, [including] those recommended by the World Health Organization that can be provided by non-mental health professionals. For long-term changes in the environment, people who are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods are at increased risk of suicide. There has been evidence of increased suicide rates among farmers in the Midwest that have been impacted by droughts and/or persistent flooding.”
Since there’s so much information available about climate change, who is impacted and how it can hurt people, why aren’t more people taking action against it?
One of the reasons might be due to misplaced blame: while it’s true that everyone should feel responsible for helping take care of our planet, it’s undeniable that rich, industrialized nations are emitting a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gasses.
According to Nadja Popovich and Brad Plumer’s article, Who Has the Most Historical Responsibility for Climate Change?, “Rich countries, including the United States, Canada, Japan and much of western Europe, account for just 12 percent of the global population today but are responsible for 50 percent of all the planet-warming greenhouse gases released from fossil fuels and industry over the past 170 years.”
That same article states that the United States alone accounts for nearly a quarter (26.4%) of the historical carbon dioxide emissions in our atmosphere. This means that while the climate crisis affects people everywhere, focusing attention and legislation on specific countries will help drastically reduce our carbon footprint on an international level.
“These [effects of the climate crisis] could be limited if we were successful in implementing strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases,” Palinkas wrote. “However, not everyone seems to be on board in admitting to the severity of the problem and the measures necessary to address it.”
It’s hard to make these changes, and even more overwhelming to consider just how much work people need to do in order to combat the climate crisis.
“Climate change and related disasters cause anxiety-related responses as well as chronic and severe mental health disorders,” the American Psychiatric Association wrote in an article titled How Extreme Weather Events Affect Mental Health. “First responders, emergency workers and others involved with responding to extreme weather-related disasters are at increased risk for mental health consequences both in the short and long term.”
It’s important to keep three things in mind moving forward: the first is to be conscious about how your actions affect the planet. If you’re living in one of the nations responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse emissions and energy usage, try assessing for any ways that you might be able to minimize your environmental impact.
The second is to make sure to stay informed, but be mindful not to overwhelm yourself with information. Similar to the COVID-19 pandemic fatigue, many people can find it emotionally exhausting to wait for constant updates and new information. It’s vital we stay informed about our choices and how they impact the world around us, but take time to care for your mental wellbeing and occasionally disengage from the onslaught of negative news.
And lastly: remember that it’s not just individuals who should be holding themselves accountable, but large corporations as well. A 2017 report by The Guardian revealed that 71% of greenhouse gas emissions come from large corporations. So while, yes, you can feel free to replace your plastic straws with metal alternatives, it would be far more worthwhile to petition against companies whose actions can drastically reduce the emissions we see in our atmosphere.
Tackling the climate crisis is a difficult task, no doubt. But it’s not impossible: taking the time to organize and advocate will bring us closer and closer to sustainable ways of living in the future.